Workplace Wisdom

How to Handle an Employee Who Plays the Perfect Victim

“I’m a victim! I’m a victim!”

Have you dealt with someone who sounds like that — maybe not as clearly, but just as dramatically?

For Perfect Victims, everything that goes wrong is the result of someone else being unhelpful or too demanding or getting in their way. Every suggested alternative only creates new difficulties for these types. No matter what you do, the PV complains, “Why aren’t you helping me more?”

Perfect Victims are convinced they’re always right, and they’re always suffering. It’s not usually clear whether they’re actually deluded or just unbelievably skilled at not seeing. They believe that their motives are pure, their skills are sharp, and that they are, above all else, blameless.

PVs thrive in jobs that require a conceptual approach or shared responsibility. They must be able to blame whatever happens on someone else — even if that someone else is their manager. Their frequent contention is: “I can’t get the direction I need, so if there are mistakes, it’s not my fault. If you don’t choose priorities or clear the way for me, then obviously I can’t be held responsible.”

Theatrical Blocking

When things go badly, the Perfect Victim may act like an emotional wreck, which effectively deflects criticism or consequences because most people are afraid of emotional confrontations. (Also see This Is What to Do with an Employee Who Cries.) Sometimes a PV openly jokes or frets about fears of being disciplined or let go. And under pressure, PVs go into self-protection mode, concerned only about themselves — not their colleagues or the big picture.

You’re in for a tough time if you’re the manager or colleague of a Perfect Victim: You’re probably dealing with habitual behaviors that have worked for years and are, in fact, difficult to pin down. Because others are often involved with whatever has gone wrong, the PV may at first seem to be Teflon-coated — no problems stick to him.

So be on your best no-nonsense, straight-talking behavior. Extend this candor to your body language, which should be open and relaxed while facing the PV directly to communicate your sense of forthrightness and absence of anxiety. Tell your Perfect Victim what you can and can’t do to help, and try to leave it at that. Remind the PV of the logical conclusions of his actions, say you’ll be available to provide future support, and then send him on his way.

Scripting an Intervention

Here’s an example of a successful intervention taken from real life. The manager began by describing the PV’s disruptive behavior patterns.

“Xerxes, at the managers’ meeting you were explaining why it’s everyone else’s fault you’re having problems,” she said. “This is a repeated practice of yours. You talk about cooperating, but in fact, you don’t answer others’ questions in a straightforward way. For example, when Penelope asked about Project A you responded with a complaint about how she handled Project B.”

She continued: “I hope you’re willing to change this behavior, because we cannot go on in this way. If you persist in doing this in meetings, I’m going to intervene and call you on it publicly, to give you the chance to cut it out immediately.”

What’s the Final Act?

Because she had been firm and direct, the manager knew that if Xerxes went off course in the next meeting, she could stop him. “Xerxes, this is not on point,” she could tell him. “Please answer the question directly from the perspective of your own responsibility, as you’ve agreed to do.” And if Xerxes doesn’t get back on track, the manager could escalate to: “Xerxes, I’m going to have to excuse you from the meeting. We’ll discuss this later.”

When a Perfect Victim like Xerxes complies, though, it’s very important to acknowledge it — in the meeting if possible. Over time, some PVs may admit their own imperfections and stop play the victim so frequently.

PVs who don’t respond to coaching should eventually be counseled into an end game. Their drama and blaming is so disruptive to other employees that in the long run, it usually outweighs their functional competence or star value.

Onward and upward,

LK

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